A Glimmer of Pragmatism on Iran

The crisis in Iraq is finally getting some U.S. policymakers to apply some pragmatism to events in the Middle East, including a recognition that Iran could help stabilize the region, as Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett and Seyed Mohammad Marandi note.

By Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett and Seyed Mohammad Marandi

It took a searing crisis for the United States to officially acknowledge that it needs Iran’s help. On Monday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns reportedly discussed the jihadist takeover of Iraq’s Sunni heartland with his Iranian counterparts on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna.

Good idea. For years, we’ve been calling on the United States to sit down and discuss its mutual interests with Iran like adults, instead of shouting across the Atlantic. Two of us, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, both former career Middle East specialists for the U.S. government, have been vilified in the American press for calling for pragmatic engagement.

An Iranian man holding a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

An Iranian man holding a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

Now there’s an opportunity to work together to face down a common threat, and even Republican leaders like Lindsey Graham, the unfailingly hawkish South Carolina senator, are starting to see things our way.

The United States should engage Iran not just as an unavoidably influential player, however, but as an actor with its own concerns about terrorism, including by jihadis involved in the U.S.-supported campaign against Bashar Assad’s government in Syria. If the United States tries, as in past episodes of cooperation with Tehran, to elicit Iranian help in Iraq without recognizing Iran’s wider interests, dialogue will fail.

Likewise, Washington needs to deal with Tehran in a genuinely reciprocal way on the nuclear issue. In the nuclear talks, America and its Western partners have insisted on terms that would cut Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure to token levels and freeze it there for 15 to 20 years. This will not just fail, it will backfire against Western interests on multiple fronts.

The West should instead focus on crafting a deal recognizing Iran as an independent, truly sovereign and rightfully rising power in its own region, as the United States did with China 40 years ago.

Like the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born out of a revolution promising its people two things: to replace an externally imposed autocracy with an indigenously created political order, for Iran, one grounded in a model of participatory Islamist governance, and to end the subordination of their country’s foreign policy to the dictates of outside powers.  In both cases, successive U.S. administrations rejected these revolutionary projects and strove to undermine them.

In the Chinese case, Washington eventually realized that two decades of trying to isolate, economically strangle and undermine the People’s Republic had not just failed, it had backfired, weakening the U.S. position in Asia and getting America involved in the draining quagmire of the Vietnam War.

America’s opening to China in the 1970s was fundamentally predicated on three things:  U.S. acceptance of the People’s Republic as an enduring political entity representing legitimate national interests; a concomitant U.S. commitment to stop trying to block China’s peaceful rise as an increasingly important player, in Asia and globally; and U.S. acknowledgement that, although America would continue to have important interests in Asia, the region would no longer be an exclusively American sphere of influence.

On this last point, the most important sentence in the 1972 Shanghai Communique, the document that served as the basic charter for realigning Sino-American relations, declares, “neither [the United States nor China] should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony.”

Today, each side is growing skeptical about the other’s ongoing adherence to this commitment. But, for more than three decades, American acceptance of China’s peaceful rise enabled the most extraordinary period of economic vitality and rising prosperity in the history of the Pacific basin.

In the case of Iran, the Obama administration has finally understood that America’s decades-long drive to determine Iran’s developmental trajectory and strategic orientation has failed. But Washington has continued to insist on the quintessentially hegemonic prerogative of micromanaging Iran’s nuclear development.

Washington insists on this not to control what Westerners perceive as the proliferation risks of Iran’s nuclear activities, perceptions more effectively and legitimately addressed through adequate monitoring and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but to use Tehran’s anticipated acquiescence to American conditions for an “acceptable” program to underscore that the Middle East remains a U.S. sphere of influence.

The United States has tried subordinating the strategic orientation of a major Middle Eastern state before. Three and a half decades ago, the U.S.-brokered Camp David accords reduced Egypt to a strategic and economic dependency of the United States. While American foreign policy elites regularly extol the regional “stability” wrought by Camp David, that stability was in fact dangerously illusory.

In the wake of Camp David, Saudi Arabia made promotion of violent jihadism an increasingly prominent tool in Saudi foreign policy, a trend that incubated al-Qaeda and is still spawning an ever-proliferating array of ideologically similar threats to international security.

Three decades of rule by a U.S.-puppet regime, with accompanying political repression and economic stagnation, made Egypt itself a prime source for jihadi ideologues (such as al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri) and fighters. And allowing the Israeli military to consolidate nearly absolute freedom of unilateral initiative, one of Camp David’s first fruits, has been deeply corrosive of America’s regional standing.

For the United States to try doing to Iran what it has done to Egypt would be even more damaging. First of all, such a course would not be sustainable; even in the unlikely event that some in the Iranian political establishment supported it, other political elites and public opinion would block the requisite consensus for such a radical change in Iranian strategy.

More broadly, diminishing Iranian power would leave America’s ostensible Middle Eastern allies even less constrained in pursuing the most destructive aspects of their regional agendas. (The jihadis’ advance in Iraq highlights just some of the risks this could pose.)

While Americans may not like hearing it, a truly stable balance of power in the Middle East needs a strong and independent Iran, representing the region’s only indigenously generated and relatively successful model of participatory Islamist governance.

Globally, too, Iran’s strategic autonomy is a stabilizing factor. American efforts to subordinate Iran into a pro-U.S. political and security order in the Middle East will reinforce both the accelerating consolidation of a Sino-Russian axis against what Beijing and Moscow see as America’s ongoing hegemonic ambition as well as a growing convergence of Russian and Chinese interests with Iran’s.

As the world becomes more multi-polar, Ayatollah Khomeini’s injunction, “neither east nor west”, words literally carved in stone at the entrance to Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, becomes ever more relevant to forging a genuinely stable international order in the Twenty-first Century.

What would it mean for America and its Western partners to seek a deal recognizing Iran as an independent, truly sovereign and rightfully rising power in its own region? Above all, it would mean recognizing that Iranians themselves will make decisions about their future energy and technology needs and how best to meet them.

The goal of a settlement should be to ensure that the theoretical proliferation risks associated with Iran’s nuclear activities, which are no greater or less than those associated with similar activities in numerous other countries, are controlled through robust IAEA monitoring and verification.

The goal should not be to force Tehran’s surrender to Washington’s diktats; that will backfire, leaving the United States, Iran and the post-Cold War international order at a dangerous precipice.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. The Leveretts are authors of  Going to Tehran. Mohammad Marandi is with the University of Tehran. [This article previously appeared at Politico and can be read by clicking here.]